Roland and I are from the same part of Illinois.Â Roland Burris was born a few miles from my hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois, in Centralia. But there is more.Â That is one of the central parts of our nation when it comes to when it comes to railroads.Â I come from a railroad family.Â My mother, father, two brothers and I all worked for the New York Central Railroad.Â Roland Burrisâ€™ father, Earl, ran a small grocery store to supplement his income as a laborer for the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad.
Earl Burris had a strong sense of communityâ€”and a low tolerance for injustice.Â On Memorial Day 1953, Earl Burris decided to take a stand against injustice by defying Centraliaâ€™s unofficial â€œwhite onlyâ€ policy for the cityâ€™s public swimming pool.Â So he hired a lawyer and arranged for that lawyer to meet him and young Roland, then 16, at the swimming pool.
Guess what?Â The lawyer didnâ€™t show up.
Roland Burris later said he remembered his father, all summer long, saying if segregation and injustice were ever going to end, people needed to show up and be accountable.Â By the end of the summer, 16-year-old Roland Burris had made up his mind.Â He would show up.Â He would pursue a career in politics and law.
Off he went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which incidentally has a record of being one of the most productive colleges in America for African American graduates.Â Roland Burris studied political science, distinguished himself as a leader on campus, and headed a group that exposed discriminatory practices among Carbondale merchants toward African American students.
In 1963, he earned a law degree from Howard University, then became a federal bank examiner in the U.S. Treasury departmentâ€”the first African American ever to hold such a position.Â In 1964, he was hired by Continental Illinois National Bank, where he rose to the post of vice president in less than a decade.Â He is also a past national executive director of Operation PUSH.
In Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, we have elected more African Americans statewide than any state in our union and we are proud of it.
Roland Burris paved the way for so many, including the man who will be sworn in as President next Tuesday, Barack Obama.Â He has held two of our stateâ€™s highest elected offices and was Illinoisâ€™ first African American Comptroller, as well the first African American Attorney General.Â He is a good man and a dedicated public servant.
Now he is the 48th United States Senator from the great state of Illinois, and the 1,907th person to be sworn in to this distinguished body.
Here is an interesting fact as well: Roland and his wife Berlean live on the South Side of Chicago in a home once owned by the greatâ€”the immortalâ€”Mahalia Jackson, the original â€œQueen of Gospel Music.â€Â In 1948, Mahalia Jackson recorded a song that was so popular, music stores couldnâ€™t keep it in stock.Â It sold eight million copies.Â The title of that song was, â€œMove On Up A Little Higher.â€
For 50 years, Roland Burris has sought to â€œmove on up a little higherâ€â€”not for his sake alone, but for the chance to help others, including our great state of Illinois. I congratulate him.â€